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What Will the Future of the Laboratory Look Like?

| Author / Editor: Dr. Kathrin Rübberdt* / Matthias Back

(Image: © Paulista/Fotolia.com)

The modern laboratory environment is shaped by the same trends that affect most areas of today’s life: Flexibility, digitalization, communication — combined with the never-changing requirements for a lab such as safety, robustness, and cleanliness. In our article you will read more about the changes in hardware and software over the years and what the future of the laboratory might look like.

„The Curie laboratory, in which radium was discovered a short time ago, […] was a cross between a stable and a potato-cellar, and, if I had not seen the worktable with the chemical apparatus, I would have thought it a practical joke,” said catalysis pioneer Wilhelm Ostwald on seeing the Curie’s laboratory facilities around 1900.

For today’s strive for innovation, such an environment is inconceivable. Even the laboratories of 20 years ago with their fixed benches, the division between laboratory and computer room, with endless manual pipetting and paper-and-pen documentation, are deprecated. Where lab robots are performing high-throughput analyses, in vitro and in silico work are converging, and international cooperation means much more than a couple of e-mails a day, adequate R&D facilities are a prerequisite for success.

Modern Lab Furniture is Light, Lean and Modular

The modern laboratory environment is shaped by the same trends that affect most areas of today’s life: Flexibility, digitalization, communication — combined with the never-changing requirements for a lab such as safety, robustness, and cleanliness.

The differences compared to the lab of old start literally at the foundation: Modern laboratory buildings provide open spaces, bringing in silico and in vitro work close together, and offer facilities for cooperation and communication. In its current report “Lab of the future”, CBRE Workspace Solutions, a commercial real estate service firm, forecasts that the need for traditional lab space will fall by half until 2029, while the high-tech development in modeling, artificial intelligence, instrumentation, analysis and collaboration tools will lead to an increase in flex labs of 21 %. The layout of the lab depends, however, on the work performed: While for quality assurance testing or routine work, traditional labs may still be the solution of choice, open-concept and flex labs are more appropriate for free-thinking research.

But buildings and rooms can only be used flexibly if the furniture supports this. Compared to the robust laboratory bench of old that was literally carved in stone, modern lab furniture is light, lean and modular. Laboratory desks and benches can be adjusted in height and put to different uses from bureau to work bench. Service installations are not permanently fixed, but decoupled and can be moved depending on changing requirements. Lab furniture provider Waldner offers service modules in form of spines, suspended booms, columns, wings and ceilings fit for every conceivable laboratory layout. Hemling Laborbau has developed a modular concept with standardized measurements, consistent heights and no projecting ends so that the lab can be completely rebuilt according to need.

And the laboratory builders have to think further: A provider who is active in the global market has to prepare for diverse conditions. German supplier Wesemann, for example, developed a mobile chemical laboratory for BASF that can ensure a constant room climate in a surrounding temperature range from -25 to +30 °C.

Smart Surfaces Will Take Over Soon

The vision of the future lab takes the furniture another step ahead: Smart surfaces will not only be able to heat or stir — goodbye magnetic stirrer and heating plate — with the appropriate diameter, temperature and speed, they will communicate with the lab worker, providing information on experiments and results and documenting the different steps in the process.

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